Irrigation District pulls reins on illegal water use penalty program


This story was published 6/5/2002

By Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald staff writer

Kennewick Irrigation District directors backpedaled from a proposed penalty program for illegal water use Tuesday, saying it needs more consideration.

That leaves the district with recommendations for residential irrigation water use but no ability to enforce them.

And it leaves a host of unanswered questions about how the rapidly urbanizing district will prepare for future droughts and manage water in an era of increasing scrutiny of natural resource use.

"If we choose not to do anything about it, it is just going to blow up again, and then we have lost a lot of ground," said KID Director Doug Grover, adding he's taken more calls from customers on this issue than any other in recent memory.

But he also acknowledged the district needs to choose carefully. "I think this needs a little more time, a little more refining," he said.

It's unclear whether the months-long discussions will bear fruit by summer's end.

The proposal addressed Tuesday would fine illegal water users $100 for the first violation, $500 for the second and $1,000 for the third. At the fourth violation, the district would disconnect water service.

At least some district leaders were uncomfortable with the severity of the fines and talked about watering them down.

"Part of it, I think, is the reluctance to come down hard," said Bill Kinsel, KID director. "It's not going to be popular."

And there were questions about whether the district could fairly enforce water schedules, especially since some subdivisions have longstanding irrigation rotation systems that work well. If the district tries to preserve existing programs, it will create inequities with other neighborhoods where irrigation systems demand different watering periods.

"We need to be consistent," Kinsel said. "And it should be uniform."

Regardless, there isn't any clarity about who would police water use or that the district wants that kind of pressure.

"I don't want the district to be seen as just a bad guy," said District Manager Chuck Garner.

"We need to start looking at the big picture before we start looking at something like this," Garner said afterward. "If we are going to do something like this, we have to make sure what we are doing is right, it's timely, it's well-informed and it's going to be enforced."

The trouble for district directors, however, is trying to create a coordinated and comprehensive policy to deal with water use in a year when supplies are plentiful and they don't have money for high-cost solutions such as districtwide metering.

Tuesday's discussion about penalties quickly turned into another wide-ranging assessment of upgrades the district needs to make to change a delivery system designed for large farm tracts into one that efficiently serves about 17,000 residential customers.

"With housing, the development has happened so fast that we haven't been able to keep up with it," Grover said.

Among ideas on the table are converting the district to a tiered rate structure that creates incentives for using less water by charging more when people use more. Customers currently pay a flat assessment for what generally has been considered "all the water you want" through the desertlike summers.

Given the district's severely limited ability to monitor individual water consumption, some customers take far more than their legal allotment and some get less -- a situation exacerbated by last year's drought.

Before the district could adopt a new pricing structure, however, it must put meters on all water spigots, an expensive and time-consuming effort, given that the water typically is too dirty for most meters.

"There are lots of options," District Attorney Brian Iller told the board. "It all is a basic policy decision."


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